Is Fracking Wastewater Being Dumped into Coal Mines in Western Pennsylvania?
By Natasha Khan
In the January cold, Ken Dufalla’s hands, chapped and raw, shake as he grips a five-foot metal pole with a small, stained plastic container attached and dunks it into the icy, orange-colored water rushing into Ten Mile Creek.
“Even the ice is turning color! You ever seen red ice, Chuck?” Dufalla screams to his buddy, retired high-school history teacher and Vietnam war vet, Chuck Hunnell.
The rusty water is a highly acidic coal mine discharge flowing from the abandoned Clyde Mine directly into Ten Mile Creek in East Bethlehem Township in Washington County, Pennsylvania.
When Marcellus Shale drilling started to boom in Greene and Washington counties, the two retired outdoorsmen began conducting weekly water tests of local streams and tributaries. Dufalla, 66, a retired park ranger and deputy fish game warden, runs the citizen water testing program for the local chapter of The Izaak Walton League, a conservation group.
Members test every headwater stream in Greene County and many in Washington and Fayette counties. And they’ve teamed up with West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute (WRI) to check their methods and test some of the same water as the group.
On that January day, Dufalla and Hunnell, 69, were testing the orangey-red acid mine discharge from the abandoned Clyde Mine running into the creek.
Recently, Dufalla’s group has found there’s something unexpected in mine waste—bromide.
On its own, bromide is a salt found in many places. But when it’s mixed with chlorine at a water treatment plant, it can create cancer-causing agents called trihalomethanes (THMs).
Dufalla wants to know where the bromide is coming from, since it isn’t usually found at high levels in mine discharge.
He has repeatedly asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the governor and energy industry officials, he said.
But he either receives no answer or he’s brushed off.
Dufalla just wants someone to pay attention and investigate.
Without an answer from officials, Dufalla said he and members of his group are left to form their own conclusions.
When asked what safeguards are in place for disposing of frack wastewater, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition cited the state’s “robust” regulatory system.
It “ensures a truly cradle-to-grave approach to the overall management of water,” Travis Windle wrote in an email.
Bromides and drinking water
In recent years, numerous water treatment plants in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia have found dangerously high levels of THMs in water that they then had to treat for drinkability.
Jeff Kovach, general manager of the Tri-County Joint Municipal Water Authority in Washington County, said his plant didn’t have problems with THM levels before the drilling boom started. He said he believes the natural gas industry was initially causing the higher levels.
“In my own opinion, absolutely, because they are everywhere around here,” said Kovach.
The discharge from Clyde Mine, an abandoned mine overseen by the DEP, is “pretty scary,” he said.
The Tri-County plant is downstream on the Monongahela.
Greene County had more than 650 natural gas wells operating, while Washington County had nearly 900 as of June 2012, according to the DEP.
It’s been widely reported that an increase in bromide in Pennsylvania’s rivers came when the drilling industry dropped off its wastewater from fracking—the horizontal drilling process used in the Marcellus Shale—at sewage treatment plants.
In early 2011, DEP Secretary Michael Krancer called on the industry to stop taking wastewater to treatment plants. The industry voluntarily complied, and bromide levels on the Monongahela decreased, according to a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University.
But Dufalla's water testing from 2012 shows higher levels of bromide in the creeks and streams funneling into the Monongahela River.
“Every one of them happens to be in mine discharges,” he said.
Dufalla said high bromide levels are coming out of two active Cumberland Mine discharges and one Emerald Mine discharge, as well as from the Clyde Mine.
The discharges flow into nearby streams that feed into the Monongahela River, a source of drinking water for one million people.
Once bromide gets into rivers like the Monongahela, it is likely to be so diluted that it isn't a real threat. However, Dufalla said that the EPA and DEP should take steps to prevent it from getting into rivers and streams at all. The less bromide, the less risk, he said.
Alpha Natural Resources, the company that owns the Cumberland and Emerald mines, did not return PublicSource’s phone calls requesting comment.
A U.S. Geological Survey study looked at tests conducted in 1999 to determine the hydrochemical makeup of 140 abandoned mines in Pennsylvania. The study found bromide showed up in all the mine discharges that were sampled at less than .6 milligrams per liter.
The WRI sampled the same locations as Dufalla’s group in Greene and Washington counties in November 2012. They showed bromide coming out of mine discharges at levels as much as 10 times higher than the 1999 study.
"My guess is, if bromides are turning up in mine water, it's probably because someone has dumped it there," said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the WRI.
Dufalla said he informs the DEP when he finds an anomaly and the agency has been good about testing the water over the past two years.
However, "the responses we get back are not acceptable," he said. "We were told, well, it's only minimal pollution from these things. We were told we don’t have the money to correct these problems."
John Poister, the DEP spokesman in Pittsburgh, said the agency sometimes conducts bromide tests on some rivers and streams, but isn’t required to.
The DEP's California District Mining Office does not test coal mine discharges for bromide, according to an email from Bill Plassio, the district mining manager.
“There is no EPA standard for bromides, therefore we do not track them in streams and creeks,” Poister said.
That’s where the problem comes in, Dufalla said.
“The EPA must set a standard for bromide,” he said, and if they don’t, the DEP should.
Frack waste in coal mines?
Dufalla, like many in Southwestern Pennsylvania, has deep connections to the land and its history. His father was a coal miner for more than 35 years, some of it at the Clyde Mine. He now leases his own 190-acre property in Greene County, to Chesapeake Energy.
He said he doesn’t oppose the shale gas industry. He knows the economic benefits and recognizes that natural gas and coal provide jobs in Greene County, one of the poorest counties in the state.
He just wants the industry to be regulated.
Hunnell, one of the league’s water testers, put it this way: “We don’t want to devastate the industry but we don’t want our lives to be devastated in the process.”
To understand their perspective, it’s important to know something about recent Greene County history and a man named Allan Shipman.
Shipman operated Allan’s Waste Water, which hauled Marcellus Shale wastewater. He was convicted last year of dumping millions of gallons of wastewater, sludge, restaurant grease and other sewage, into mine shafts, streams and onto roadsides for six years in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
“I just think that there were a lot more people doing what he was doing, but he was the only one that got caught,” said Greene County Sheriff Richard Ketchem. “And then all of a sudden when he got caught you don't see that anymore.”
After a two-year investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office, Shipman was sentenced to seven years probation, 1,750 hours community service and nearly $400,000 in fines and restitution.
Ketchem said he thinks Shipman’s conviction scared the industry into compliance.
“I really think it turned things around in the entire industry,” Ketchem said.
Others beg to differ.
Terri Davin, president of the Greene County Watershed Alliance, said the industry has an “out of sight, out of mind” policy.
“My theory is, whenever there’s a hole, you can use it,” Davin said of the dumping that takes place. “It’s open season down here.”
Davin partially blames the residents of Greene County for not speaking up about Shipman.
“The guilty people here are us,” she said about Greene County residents. “We saw this happening and we didn’t come together and question enough.”
She said that with the amount of natural gas drilling and coal mining going on in Greene County, it’s better to question things than to turn a blind eye.
Dufalla and his group are doing that.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
In Major Win for Indigenous Rights, Supreme Court Rules Much of Eastern Oklahoma Is Still a Reservation
Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
- Federal Judge Orders Trump Admin to Give Native Americans Their ... ›
- Police Were Ready to Shoot Indigenous Pipeline Protesters in ... ›
- Climate Justice, Indigenous Rights Advocates Rally for Wet'suwet'en ... ›
By Tiffany Means
Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.
The coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next, the World Health Organization acknowledged on Thursday, as The New York Times reported. The announcement came just days after 239 scientists wrote a letter urging the WHO to consider that the novel coronavirus is lingering in indoor spaces and infecting people, as EcoWatch reported.
- Airborne Coronavirus Transmission Must Be Taken Seriously, 239 ... ›
- Trump Halts WHO Funding Amidst Criticism of His Own Coronavirus ... ›
- Here's Why COVID-19 Can Spread So Easily at Gyms and Fitness ... ›
- Is the New Coronavirus Airborne? A Study From China Finds Evidence ›
By Angela Nicoletti
The eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in central Perú are among the most remote places in the world.
- Global Frog Pandemic May Become Even Deadlier as Strains ... ›
- New Species of Diamond Frog Discovered in Remote Pocket of ... ›
- Frogs Are on the Verge of Mass Extinction, Scientists Say - EcoWatch ›
A new analysis by scientists at the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that lemurs and the North Atlantic right whale are on the brink of extinction.
- Trump Admin Denies Endangered Species Protections to Pacific ... ›
- Trump Admin Failed to Protect 241 Species From Extinction ... ›
- New Border Wall Construction Threatens 8 Species With Extinction ... ›
By Julia Vergin
It is undisputed that vitamin D plays a role everywhere in the body and performs important functions. A severe vitamin D deficiency, which can occur at a level of 12 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, leads to severe and painful bone deformations known as rickets in infants and young children and osteomalacia in adults. Unfortunately, this is where the scientific consensus ends.
Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
- 8 Ways to Tell if You Are Vitamin D Deficient - EcoWatch ›
- 7 Healthy Foods That Are High in Vitamin D - EcoWatch ›
- 7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common ›
Ocean scientists have been busy creating a global network to understand and measure changes in ocean life. The system will aggregate data from the oceans, climate and human activity to better inform sustainable marine management practices.
EcoWatch sat down with some of the scientists spearheading the collaboration to learn more.
Climate models are predicting faster warming of the North Atlantic Ocean, which will shift the Gulf Stream. NASA
- Could the Climate Crisis Spell the End for Maine Lobster? - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Reasons Why Biodiversity Matters - EcoWatch ›
- World Leaders, Media Ignore Biodiversity Report Detailing Mass ... ›
- The Top 10 Ocean Biodiversity Hotspots to Protect - EcoWatch ›